The health of your gums has a much larger effect on your overall health than you may realize. It can actually increase the risk or worsen the effects of other serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and dementia.
Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the risks gum disease presents to their broader health. This can pose a significant problem since gum disease is often the result of poor oral hygiene. This means that people are not only failing to protect their oral health but their systemic health, as well.
The Link Between Gum Disease and Other Diseases
According to Dr. Nigel Carter, Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation:
The link between oral health and overall body health is well documented and backed by robust scientific evidence. Despite this, only 1 in 6 people realises that people with gum disease may have an increased risk of stroke or diabetes. And only 1 in 3 is aware of the heart disease link.
This kind of information just goes to show that maintaining good oral health habits are about more than preventing bad breath or cavities. They’re about protecting your health as a whole.
What is gum disease?
Gum disease, clinically known as periodontitis, is a type of gum infection that damages soft tissue in the mouth. In milder forms, it causes irritation and inflammation of the gingiva, which is the part of your gums that connect to the base of your teeth. This form of gum disease is known as gingivitis.
If left untreated, gingivitis can advance beyond the gums and turn into periodontitis. At this stage, the infection works its way down causing the gums to pull away from the teeth. It eventually attacks the bones that support them, resulting in loose teeth or even tooth loss.
Gingivitis is a common oral health problem that can be reversed with proper oral hygiene and the help of your dentist and hygienist. Periodontitis, on the other hand, is not reversible. Fortunately, its effects can be slowed down with proper treatment.
Gum Health and Heart Disease
Those being treated for high blood pressure tend to experience better results if they also have good oral health, according to the American Heart Association. A review of previous studies found that over 3,600 people with high blood pressure who also had good oral health actually had lower blood pressure and a better response to medication. On the flip side, those with poor oral health were 20% less likely to achieve healthy blood pressure levels.
One interesting observation was that gum disease combined with poor oral health created an even wider gap between patients. In this case, those with untreated high blood pressure were able to improve. However, they couldn’t reach the same levels as those without gum disease, even with medication. This has led researchers to suspect that gum disease may actually disrupt the effectiveness of treatment.
Dr. Davide Pietrapaoli, the lead researcher of the review, stresses the importance of physicians and dentists working together by saying:
Physicians should pay close attention to patients’ oral health, particularly those receiving treatment for hypertension, and urge those with signs of periodontal disease to seek dental care… Likewise, dental health professionals should be aware that oral health is indispensable to overall physiological health, including cardiovascular status.
Gum Health and Diabetes
Diabetes is a disorder that makes it more difficult for your body to process sugar. This is a big problem since your body turns food into sugar to be used as energy. Diabetes comes in two types: Type I and Type II. Both affect the insulin in your body — a hormone that carries sugar to cells to be used as energy. Patients with Type I diabetes don’t make enough insulin on their own. Those with Type II diabetes have stopped responding to insulin completely.
Regardless of the type of diabetes one may have, both cause patients to have higher blood sugar levels than normal. Along with affecting your heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves, it can also have a huge impact on your oral health. Examples include:
- Dry mouth
- Inflamed or bleeding gums
- Higher risk of oral infections
- Higher risk of cavities
- Slower wound healing
Problems like these greatly increase the risk of gum disease for diabetics. Gum disease, and infections in general, can also cause blood sugar to rise and make diabetes more difficult to control. It’s the most common form of dental disease for diabetics and the risk only heightens with age, making basic oral hygiene and visiting the dentist extremely important.
Gum Health and Dementia
There are about 700 different kinds of bacteria that exist in the mouth, including those that cause gum disease. Once in the bloodstream, this bacteria can travel from the mouth to the brain and may contribute to the development of dementia.
One 2019 study found that patients with Alzheimer’s symptoms tended to have higher levels of bacteria associated with gum disease in brain tissue, spinal fluid, as well as in their saliva. While more research needs to be done, this shows that it is possible for gum disease-related bacteria to travel to other parts of the body.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy body dementia is the second most common form of dementia following Alzheimer’s. This type of dementia is characterized by:
- Mobility issues similar to Parkinson’s disease
- Visual hallucinations
- Difficult regulating the nervous system
- Cognitive issues
While not exactly the same as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia does share some similarities with it. Most notable are the plaques and tangles that both conditions result in. Located in the brain, plaques are abnormal protein fragments that grow between nerve cells in the brain. Similarly, tangles damage a cell transport system made of protein, preventing essential resources from moving between cells and causing them to die.
Gum disease affects much more than your oral health. It can increase your blood pressure and actually interfere with treatment for high blood pressure. Those who live with diabetes are at a higher risk for gum disease and can have more trouble controlling their diabetes. More recently, gum disease has been connected to dementia due to bacteria reaching the bloodstream.